Re: Life in the Lab -- Fox and the Nobel Prize

David J. Tyler (
Thu, 6 May 1999 13:05:25 GMT

On Wed, 5 May, Kevin O'Brien wrote to Moorad:

> In science you do not have to take anything on faith. If Fox simply claimed
> that life could be synthesized in the lab, but provided no evidence to back
> up his claim, I wouldn't believe him either. The reason why I believe him is
> because he can back up his claims with scientific evidence that demonstrates
> he really has synthesized life in the lab. I don't have to have faith when I
> can read his papers, and the papers support his claims.

Also, in science, we have to be prepared to let our research be
scrutinised by our peers. It does matter what researchers in the
same field think. This is what this thread was about: is there a
widely held view in the abiogenesis research community that the
essential problems have been solved?

I have picked up my copy of Robert Schapiro's book "Origins" (first
published 1986). He devotes considerable space to Fox's work.
"For the past quarter of a century, Professor Fox has been the most
noted advocate of the proteins-first position on the origin of
"Sidney Fox has not merely served as a rallying point for the
proteins-first group, but has advocated the particular system of
proteinoid microspheres, first demonstratd in his laboratory in the
late 1950s, as _the_ solution to the origin-of-life problem.
Needless to say, this position has made him a center of
"Why did he arouse these responses? Perhaps because he felt that he
had largely solved the origin-of-life problem. Fox referred to
another scientist who had published an extensive theory which
outlined the important questions yet to be considered: "How is he
going to feel after he finds out that we've answered these
questions?" "(192)

Thus far, Shapiro has confirmed the point that Kevin has been making:
that Fox and some of his protein-first co-researchers do genuinely
believe they have cracked the major problems. But then Schapiro goes
on to make the same point regarding the need ti look at the research
outcomes - but comes to the opposite conclusion to Kevin.

"The Skeptic must intrude at this point in our narrative. He points
out that whatever the interpersonal feelings that may be involved,
the value of the system must ultimately be determined by the
experiments themselves. So we must turn to the details...."(193)

Then follows several pages of analysis, and Shapiro explains why the
proteinoid microspheres do not (yet) deliver satisfactory answers to
the big questions of abiogenesis.

I then turned to John Casti's book "Paradigms lost" (first published
1989). He has a lengthy chapter on the abiogenesis issue. His
summary of positions taken on earth-based abiogenesis is on page 140.
Eigen, Orgel have proposed random replicators, hypercycles
Gilbert, Cech have proposed self-catalytic RNA
Oparin has proposed coacervates
Fox has proposed proteinoids
Dyson, Shapiro, Margulis have proposed a double origin, parasites
Cairns-Smith has proposed clay

Each of these models receives discussion and analysis. One paragraph:
"It's clear that both the Oparin and the Fox scenarios are hopelessly
deficient when it comes to the problem of providing a genetic
mechanism whereby hereditary information can be passed along to
future generations of cells, opening up the possibility for natural
selection to come into play. So just as the naked genies suffer from
an Achilles' left heel of no proteins to catalyze reactions that
would allow development of a large genetic information store, the
proteinists suffer from the complementary right heel of no
replication machinery.....(99).

Casti comes down in favour of Cairns-Smith - because he has suffered
less criticism than the others!

The goal of this post is to point out that Fox's work has not been
ignored by his peers, but rather it has been closely scrutinised.
And the verdict has been: Fox does not have the experimental
foundation to justify his claim to have solved the "origin of life"

Best regards,
David J. Tyler.